A good place to start with consumer protection at DOT — implement passed laws already on the books
During the past half-decade Travelers United has been working hard for consumers. Our mission was to get the Department of Transportation (DOT) to enforce and implement passed laws. Amazingly, there are a lot of these laws passed by Congress. We need leadership. However, during the past administration, DOT denizens have faced rewards for bureaucratic foot-dragging and penalties for proposals of new rules.
The civil servants at DOT have done a good job for the past 12 years that I have been in DC. The three Passenger Protection rulemakings all came from many of the same people who still work in Washington. The changes come at the top.
The last Secretary of Transportation was told by her boss, President Trump, that there will be no new regulations. His belief for the first three years and nine months of his term was steady. Only after the election was lost did he pass any new regulations. The first changed the way that DOT analyzed “unfair and deceptive practices.” The second began the process to eliminate fair pricing of airline tickets. Both were anti-consumer. They were against the very people that elected Trump to office. It is sad when a populist president does the exact opposite of what his mantra was when he was elected.
We need to implement passed laws that were passed by Congress and ignored by the political leaders at DOT
I think a good place to start is to get the laws already passed by Congress into the Code of Federal Regulations. That will require a DOT that does its executive duty. And finally, in the new Secretary Buttigieg we have a person whose main focus is the public, the voters. He has long-term political goals that can only be realized by protecting consumers.
Four years ago, in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill, Travelers United worked together with a bipartisan group of Representatives and Senators. This group supported the establishment of an Aviation Consumer Advocate in DOT. The rationale for this new position was to make the protection of consumers a mandatory part of DOT’s mission. The creation of this new consumer advocate position within the hierarchy of DOT was almost done in secret. Few members outside of the House and Senate committee chairmen, plus a few non-committee representatives and Travelers United, worked on the effort. They succeeded in creating the new position of Aviation Consumer Advocate.
The consumer advocate office should be strengthened and used for passenger protection
Testifying before Congress in September 2018, Mr. Szabat from the FAA noted:
Key mandates in the Reauthorization include establishing an Aviation Consumer Advocate within DOT to assist consumers in resolving airline service complaints filed with the Department; to identify actions the Department can take to improve the resolution of airline service complaints and enforcement of aviation consumer protection rules; and to identify regulations and policies that can be amended to resolve airline service complaints more effectively.
In March 2019, we selected Blane Workie, Assistant General Counsel for the Department’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, to serve as the Aviation Consumer Advocate. To help her fulfill the responsibilities of the Aviation Consumer Advocate, Ms. Workie has already established two new positions in her office – Director of Consumer Advocacy and Director of Civil Rights Advocacy.
Travelers United objected to the position being filled by Ms. Workie. It seemed that having a proper consumer advocate in this DOT position made sense. Placing the person who is also the airline advocate put her in an impossible situation. It made hard and directed consumer advocacy difficult. Travelers United lost their objection.
Plus, the DOT mission was changed in early 2018 by the previous administration. It now reads:
Mission. To ensure America has the safest, most efficient and modern transportation system in the world, which boosts our economic productivity and global competitiveness and enhances the quality of life in communities both rural and urban.
Please note: There is no mention of aviation consumer protection in the mission statement. DOT substitutes enforcement of aviation regulations under DOT protection. Federal preemption eliminated state and local consumer protection. No state judicial protection is permitted other than small claims court. Part of the reasoning behind the establishment of the Aviation Consumer Advocate position was to highlight the protection and enforcement mission. DOT can now. With a new administration, it can be added, as it should be.
To start, DOT Secretary Buttigieg should implement passed laws first. Here is a beginning for the new administration in terms of aviation consumer protection.
These issues have been passed or studies have been mandated by Congress as part of the 2016 and 2018 FAA Reauthorization Bills. The new administration should finally get rulemakings started to get these into the Code of Federal Regulations.
- Families sitting together (2016 FAA Reauthorization Bill)
- Refunds of baggage fees for delayed and damaged luggage (2016 FAA Reauthorization Bill)
- Results of seat sizes and movement on that issue (2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill)
- Evacuation testing completed (2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill)
- Flight attendant rest (2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill)
- Cockpit secondary barriers (2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill)
- A sick passenger rulemaking
- Airlines’ Contract of Carriage with teeth and easy-to-understand rules
- A public hearing on AA/JetBlue competition elimination via codeshare arrangement
- Public posting of all airfares and ancillary fees charged for both mandatory and options services
- Consumer membership on any airline and travel industry committee created to “revitalize” the aviation sector.
These consumer protections will provide a good start for Secretary Buttigieg as he sets up his office on New Jersey Avenue. Remember, the main mission of DOT is to protect consumers through enforcement and by operating the best and safest aviation system in the world.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 12 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.